THE BOOK SHELF: Exploring Tennessee Williams' Demons and a Brief Work on Bernstein

News   THE BOOK SHELF: Exploring Tennessee Williams' Demons and a Brief Work on Bernstein
 
This month's column discusses John Lahr's new, comprehensive biography "Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh" and Allen Shawn's "Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician," a brief but incisive work on the composer.

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There have been more than 40 books written about the life and work of Tennessee Williams, John Lahr tells us in his preface to "Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh" [Norton]. Lahr, the noted critic and biographer, was first approached to tell the story in 1983, just after the playwright's death at the age of 71. He didn't seem to want to tackle Williams until he had the time, the resources and the insight to write something that would stand above the others. He has now given us just that: a comprehensive Tennessee Williams book which not only tells us about the man and his plays, but offers a pretty damn good explanation of who he was, how he got that way and how his personal demons informed his work.

A long-time staffer at The New Yorker, Lahr has many years of drama criticism to his credit. What's more, he has a strong, lifelong connection to theatre; his books include the well-regarded Joe Orton biography "Prick Up Your Ears." The notorious Orton — a British purveyor of decidedly black comedies who was bludgeoned to death at the age of 34 — was surely a difficult subject, but Lahr unblinkingly leapt in and came out with a fascinating book. Although Orton's adventures were almost ordinary, compared to the rollercoaster existence of Williams.

Lahr, of course, has an advantage over other writers in discussing the inner mind of internationally-renowned show folk: he grew up as the son of Bert Lahr, one of those legendary funnymen who turned out to be not quite so funny offstage. Hence, Lahr's first (and perhaps best) book, "Notes on a Cowardly Lion." Thirty years later, he undertook to make sense of Elaine Stritch, that "existential problem in tights,"resulting in the Broadway hit Elaine Stritch at Liberty (and, ultimately, a lawsuit between Lahr and Stritch for nonpayment of royalties).

So it's fair to say that Lahr is a perfect choice for the job of deconstructing Tennessee Williams. Williams is one of the last century's prime examples of the genre "tortured artist." Following a decade of struggle, he burst into prominence in 1945 with The Glass Menagerie; over the next 16 years, he turned out such plays as A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Night of the Iguana. After 1961, though, came two decades of wandering through a haze of addictions, during which he turned out play after play after play — mostly nonproducible, although at least a dozen were produced and quickly failed. Unlike Arthur Miller and Edward Albee — playwriting giants who similarly followed early success with repeated failure — Williams did not wind up back on top, dying alone surrounded by pill bottles in a Manhattan hotel room in 1983.

Lahr continually merges Williams' plays with details of his life, keeping things in context. What's more, he superimposes what we might call the ever-present Williams Family Repertory Company. The Glass Menagerie, famously, introduces us to the playwright, his mother Edwina and his sister Rose ("Laura" in the play). Edwina forced a lobotomy on Rose in 1943, which effectively destroyed her life — she remained institutionalized until her death in 1996 — and had a severe psychological effect on her brother. Williams' travelling salesman-father is in evidence in The Glass Menagerie as a blurred photo on the wall. His maternal grandparents, the Reverend Walter Dakin and his wife Rosina, can be seen elsewhere in the plays. All serve as recurring ghosts; Lahr suggests that Williams, in his plays, is repeatedly attempting to resolve and "fix" elements of his past.

There are other strong characters on hand, including play agent Audrey Wood, who somehow knew to take on Williams based on three early one-acts; director Elia Kazan, who directed four of the most important plays (including A Streetcar Named Desire); and Williams' muse of later years and literary executor, Maria St. Just. But it is mostly Williams here, drawn from his plays, his memoirs, his diaries, his letters and more. Lahr reports and analyzes but also understands, and therein lies the power of "Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh." The phrase comes from a 1937 diary entry, in which Williams referred to his uncontrollable desires: "Am I all animal, all willful, blind, stupid beast?"

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If playwright Tennessee Williams was a larger-than-life twentieth century celebrity-artist, composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein was one on an even bigger, international scale. As with Williams, there are dozens of Bernstein books around; many of these are weighty, given the multiple areas of Bernstein's career, and some very good. The recent publication of "The Leonard Bernstein Letters" gave us a fascinating glimpse into the true nature of the man. Now, the Yale University Press, which brought us The Letters, has released Allen Shawn's "Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician."

This is part of Yale's "Jewish Lives" series of what they call "brief, interpretive" biographies in which "subjects are paired with authors to elicit lively, deeply informed books." Shawn is indeed an informed writer. A serious (i.e. non-show) composer and a student of Nadia Boulanger, Shawn grew up in a celebrity family, the son of long-time New Yorker editor William Shawn and younger brother of playwright/actor Wallace Shawn. The author is well suited to the task at hand, especially in his ability to offer concise descriptions of Bernstein's work as both composer and conductor. The book is indeed brief, 280-pages plus notes and index. (The typical Bernstein bio averagese about 500 pages.) This turns out to be an asset, as there is so much to say about Lenny that you can easily get bogged down. Reading "An American Musician"just after "The Leonard Bernstein Letters" offers a marvelously focused view of the man. "The Letters" took us on Bernsteinian tangents, with his hyperactive mind gushing forth with thought after thought. Shawn brings us the same information — with the letters serving as invaluable source material — but he more or less reigns in his subject's natural enthusiasm. Thus, we get a crystallized view of Bernstein. Fans of "The Letters" will find Shawn's book a valuable supplement.

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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